17 December 2009

feature phones, smart phones, smarter phones, oh my!

If you're in the market for a new phone or even curious about phones in general, there are lots of choices on each of the major network operators to choose from.  However while each carrier appears to have it's "signature" (or Hero to use the appropriate vernacular of the handset and carrier world) smartphone (e.g. iPhone for AT&T, Droid for Verizon, Palm Pre for Sprint, etc).  They also carry a lot of other phones where the bulk of the purchases occur.  Sure there are the really simple Nokia, Samsung and LG phones that have some cool features but are lost somewhere between the ability to make phone calls and the ability to efficiently browse the web and the really basic phones where you need a PhD or tons of time on your hands to do anything other than making calls or sending text messages.  I'm sure if I spent the time to find a link to the appropriate research, I could clearly show you a chart of market share for smartphones and that of non-smartphone and how globally the bulk of purchases are non-smartphones (e.g. phones not designed for surfing the web and installing 3rd party applications), but you'll just have to trust me and your intuition.

And then there are RIM devices...  interestingly they are one of the few phone manufacturers that is available in some shape or form on every network and are technically classified as a smartphone.  The reason I think that Blackberries are different is simply because traditionally the consumer product value is not evident.  After all what are these devices really good at?  Short email correspondences.  Eight years ago when they were first really bursting onto the scene,  they were the accoutrement of the corporate road warrior and then quickly to the general knowledge worker.  Big, bulky and worn on the belt - a status symbol that you were important and had to remain in touch at all times.  Honestly relative to the latest offerings (outside the Pearl and the Storm) not much has changed.  The software has gotten gradually better, but still has plenty of legacy implementations tied to contextual text menus; and the UI and interaction model is relatively plain compared to modern OS implementations.  

The Pearl was different for 2 factors - size and keyboard entry.  First off it was finally a Blackberry that could be placed into the pocket and was not much different in size from many of the candy bar phones.  Second the introduction of SureType (is that how it's capitalized?) allowed for the form factor to be successful.  While just about everyone in Europe and Asia were using T9 text input, SureType allowed for quicker text entry while only requiring a slightly larger space for the keys.  Thus since the general US population never took up T9 for the most part and wanted a Blackberry that could fit into the pocket, this became the must have phone for those who had to have a Blackberry or were long time Blackberry users who now thought this would be an acceptable device for their significant others.  And of course RIM did a good job with the carriers promoting the device to the youth and general consumer market which helped the device become successful.

Storm wasn't a success at least not in comparison to the other touch screen smartphones that were launched in the last couple of years.  The first Storm had a horrendous interaction model that felt like it was grafted on top of an aging platform that wasn't built in the first place for touch screen devices.  Then there were lots of bugs and issues with the touch screen itself to boot. Most of these were figured out after launching the device and the second generation Storm is a lot better.  The interaction model is a little bit different from the rest of the devices of this class and the software is improving greatly.  A lot is being done to really take this type of device to the next level and I believe RIM has the talent and desire to do so.  Storm's potential success really relies somewhere else, and is worthy of a blog entry of it's own.

Now to what I consider the shocking secret of RIM phones - The Curve.  As a self admitted technology geek who spends time playing with any and all new phones and gadgets I can get my hands on (it's a lot less now that I'm not gainfully employed), I dismissed the Curve outright.  Honestly, it felt like a cheap entry level version of the high-end Blackberries of the past.  Why would people go out en-mass and purchase one?

From what I can gather, here's my short list:
- The vast number of Blackberry users who received one from work over the past decade is quite large.  Many of these users have become addicts and crave to continue to own a Blackberry even if they have to pay for it.

- Those users who are addicted to them, inflict that pain to their significant others (just kidding!).  Users who have spent a large portion of their career with a Blackberry and continue to use one are very likely to induce their spouses, children and friends on the virtue of always being in touch.

- The wide spread use of Facebook and Twitter along with email access is highly desire-able to a large portion of users.  Plus the ability to use a full QWERTY keyboard reinforces the notion that text entry would be quicker on that style of device than any others.  [The entry speed argument is debatable, and also worthy of an entire post].

- Social acceptability of checking and texting in public has clearly changed.  When Blackberries first arrived on the scene, the common joke was of the "Blackberry Prayer" - when someone would lean down and start typing away on the Blackberry under the desk so as not to be seen.  Nowadays people simply start interacting with the mobile devices in almost any situation without being perceived as overtly rude.  Just look around you at all the people playing games on their iPhone or tweeting the latest thought!

- One of the few corporate perks that still exist is that some companies may pay your cellular bill or at least part of it.  For those that want their corporate email on their device, there are few choices that work as well as a Blackberry thus helping to contribute into the uptake of the device.

- Finally, the price is right.  Just go to any Walmart and you'll be able to pick up the Curve on the carrier of your choice for a song and a dance.  And with some marketing you can get 2 of them for next to nothing.  Thus keeping the Blackberry in the family.

I'm sure there are other really good reasons for the Curve's success which I'd love to hear about.

The bigger question is why did I spend all this virtual ink talking about RIM devices, their consumer push and the Curve in general?

The phone market is changing.  The high-end smart phones are getting ridiculously bloated with lots of converged functionality that makes geeks (like myself) happy until the next cool gadget comes along.  The gap between small tiny PCs and the phone is rapidly disappearing and the focus is on which "Apps" are available on which platforms and how much you can charge for them, generate mobile advertisement revenue, or brand new experiences.  The parallel with the model of PC usage and business models are growing closer every day.  However the biggest market is not in the coolest, hippest most sought after phone in the market; rather the phones that have the most impact on general consumers.

Obviously "winning" isn't necessarily about shipping the most handsets or having the highest revenue per handset; rather it's about creating a brand loyalty with an experience where the user not only wants to interact with the device, but the interaction is highly usable.  In the emerging "middle space" between the low end feature phones and the higher end smartphones there is a huge opportunity for creating a new and exciting experience for the general mass market.  It's simply about building out the infrastructure for the device to allow it to have the proper features and functions that clearly meets the needs of this market in a unique, cost effective and productive manner.  

To me the Curve is an example of a device that comes really close to this ideal for a particular set of customers, but I'm willing to bet that someone who really decides to focus on this market can do a lot better!

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